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Inspirational women for the water sector

  • Inspirational women for the water sector

Today on International Women’s Day, it is not only necessary to draw attention to all women working in the water sector now, but also to remember and cheer all those who made a difference or who are still making a mark in the water and scientific stratum. And who ultimately inspired many women in the sector to dedicate their life work to this incredibly rich and diverse sector.

As Águeda García de Durango mentioned in her post last year, there is a long list of women in history that transformed the sector thanks to their creations and writings, including Marie Meurdrac, Isabella Cortese and Hypatia of Alexandria. But who is inspiring women now and why?

To find out, we asked several women in the sector, from economists to scientists and lawyers: What woman in the water/scientific sector has most inspired you? And why?

These are their answers:

Catarina Fonseca. IRC Associate

Answer: Mariana Mazzucato ( She is an economist that focuses on the role of the public sector and public investment in economic growth. She has been inspiring, because she talks about what matters: about innovation and the role it plays in making the world a better place, about the right and the wrong type of incentives. The language and evidence she uses are very accessible and appealing to decision-makers. She is the type of scientist that makes a difference, and I think we need more bigger picture thinkers/scientists in the water and sanitation sector.

Lesley Pories. Manager, Sector strategy at

Answer: I am lucky to have two women come to mind when asked this question, and even luckier to know both of them. 

The first is Eleanor Allen, CEO of Water for People.  She came into the WASH sector as an engineer, which remains a male-dominated profession, and it is constantly inspiring and reassuring to see a female engineer, seeped in experience with the WASH sector, in the senior-most leadership position within a WASH organization. We honestly do not have enough of that. 

The second is Dr. Catarina Fonseca, a senior economist with IRC WASH with whom I have the privilege of working regularly and consider a friend.  She’s been advocating for the importance of addressing WASH finance long before it was popular and is frequently solicited by governments and institutions for guidance on streamlining budgets to maximize public investment in water and sanitation.

Both women are recognized experts in their respective fields – fields where men continue to outnumber women. Moreover, both women manage to balance their heavy workloads in ways that enable them to indulge in external passions, demonstrating to me that success does not have to come at the total expense of everything else.  Eleanor has a family and is an avid cyclist.  Catarina has been able to shape her work according to her preferences and not sacrifice her passion for tango.   As a woman I have tended to let my drive to be successful overtake other aspects of my life, feeling pressure to overachieve in order to be recognized, and both Catarina and Eleanor set clear examples of women being respected at the top of their fields while still having very fulfilling lives that do not exclusively center upon the work.  These are powerful reminders that are very necessary for me at this point in my career, and it is reassuring that I do not have to look far at all to find those role models.

Rosie Wheen, WaterAid Australia Chief Executive

Answer: With this years’ International Women’s Day theme focusing on women in leadership, I reflected on two women in the water sector that have, and continue to, inspire me.

Karen Milward is a Yorta Yorta woman and sits as Director on the board of Yarra Valley Water. Karen’s leadership in this role ensures an Aboriginal prospect is brought to the water sector. My inspiration from Karen is taken from her conviction in ensuring someone who is actively involved with the Aboriginal community can contribute to policy and programs from a perspective that ensures no one is left behind or not considered when shaping decisions around Victoria’s water. Karen puts herself, experience and opinions forward on decisions around programs, policy and responses on areas that concern Aboriginal people, ensuring she is a voice for those who have too often been voiceless and sharing the wisdom and care for country and water is integrated into the Australia water industry practices and approaches.

Managing Director of Samoa Water Authority (SWA), Seugamaalii Jammie Saena is charging forward as one of the leading voices on the impact of climate change for the Pacific Region and what can be done to mitigate the already very real impacts. Within the Pacific, rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns and flooding are already a reality. Jammie is driven to make it clear that climate change is not just a future problem, it is here now and it is very real. Jammie is calling for collaborative efforts and championing ways of working together to mediate the effects. Having a strong Samoan woman leading these calls for the region inspires me and continues to highlight the importance of gender in WASH.

Anna Luísa Beserra, Founder and CEO of Safe Drinking Water For All

Answer: Since I was a kid, my main inspiration was and still is Marie Curie. She inspires me by her determination and passion for her work in science, her work (although it costed her life) had a great impact on the world. Today she is the only scientist with two Nobel prizes in the field of science. My work at SDW with the aim of democratizing access to water also inspires me to have passion and determination so that I can follow a path with purpose, like Marie Curie.

Raha Hakimdavar, Hydrologist and National Program Lead for Remote Sensing Research at US Forest Service

Answer: I am inspired by all of the brilliant, bold and creative women that are leading change in the scientific and water communities. It's difficult to single out any individual without acknowledging the whole. The growing diversity of female perspectives in these traditionally male oriented fields is really important to helping us address water related challenges in an inclusive and sustainable way. I'm especially excited by the energy that younger generations are bringing to this work. It is a great time to be doing what we do and I hope that more women join the call!

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